The last part of the trail was the steepest, as far as she could recall from her high-school frolics up here. Who could forget that ankle-bending climb? Rocky and steep and dark. She had entered the section of woods people called the Christmas Tree Farm, fir trees planted long ago in some scheme that never panned out. The air suddenly felt colder. The fir forest had its own spooky weather, as if these looming conifers held an old grudge, peeved at being passed over. What had she been thinking, to name that hunting shack for a meeting place? Romance felt as unreachable now as it did on any average day of toting kids and dredging the floor of doll babies. She could have made things easy on herself and wrecked her life in a motel room like a sensible person, but no. Her legs were tired and her butt ached. She could feel blisters welling on both feet. The boots she'd adored this morning now seemed idiotic, their slick little heels designed for parading your hindquarters in jeans, not real walking. She watched her step, considering what a broken ankle would add to her day. The trail was a cobbled mess of loose rocks, and it ran straight uphill in spots, so badly rutted she had to grab saplings to steady herself.
With relief she arrived on a level stretch of ground carpeted with brown fir needles. But something dark loomed from a branch over the trail. A hornet's nest was her first thought, or a swarm of bees looking for a new home. She'd seen that happen. But the thing was not humming. She approached slowly, hoping to scoot under it, with or without a positive ID. It bristled like a cluster of dead leaves or a down-turned pine cone, but was much bigger than that. Like an armadillo in a tree, she thought, with no notion of how large that would be. Scaly all over and pointed at the lower end, as if it had gone oozy and might drip. She didn't much care to walk under it. For the second time she wished for the glasses she'd left behind. Vanity was one thing, but out here in the damn wilderness a person needed to see. She squinted up into dark branches backlit by pale sky. The angle made her a little dizzy.
Her heart thumped. These things were all over, dangling like giant bunches of grapes from every tree she could see. Fungus was the word that came to mind, and it turned down the corners of her mouth. Trees were getting new diseases now. Cub had mentioned
that. The wetter summers and mild winters of recent years were bringing in new pests that apparently ate the forest out of house and home. She pulled her jacket close and hurried underneath the bristly thing, ducking, even though it hung a good ten feet above the trail. She cleared it by five. And even so, shivered and ran her fingers through her hair afterward and felt childish for fearing a tree fungus. The day couldn't decide whether to warm up or not. In the deep evergreen shade it was cold. Fungus brought to mind scrubbing the mildewed shower curtain with Mr. Clean, one of her life's main events. She tried to push that out of her thoughts, concentrating instead on her reward at the end of the climb. She imagined surprising him as he stood by the shack waiting for her, coming up on him from behind, the
sight of his backside in jeans. He'd promised to come early if he could, hinting he might even be naked when she arrived. With a big soft quilt and a bottle of Cold Duck. Lord love a duck, she thought. After subsisting for years on the remains of toddler lunches and juice boxes, she'd be drunk in ten minutes. She shivered again and hoped that was a pang of desire, not the chill of a wet day and a dread of tree fungus. Should it be so hard to tell the difference?
The path steered out of the shadow into a bright overlook on the open side of the slope, and here she slammed on her brakes; here something was wrong. Or just strange. The trees above her were draped with more of the brownish clumps, and that was the least of it. The view out across the valley was puzzling and unreal, like a sci-fi movie. From this overlook she could see the whole mountainside that lay opposite, from top to bottom, and
the full stand of that forest was thickly loaded with these bristly things. The fir trees in the hazy distance were like nothing she'd ever seen, their branches droopy and bulbous. The trunks and boughs were speckled and scaly like trees covered with corn flakes. She had small children, she'd seen things covered with corn flakes. Nearly all the forest she could see from here, from valley to ridge, looked altered and pale, the beige of dead leaves. These were evergreen trees, they should be dark, and that wasn't foliage. There was movement in it. The branches seemed to writhe. She took a small automatic step backward from the overlook
and the worrisome trees, although they stood far away across the thin air of the hollow. She reached into her purse for a cigarette, then stopped.
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